The high over­head of sci­en­tific re­search

Tax­pay­ers shouldn’t have to pay for new build­ings and fat salaries

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By La­mar Smith

Last year Amer­i­can tax­pay­ers spent more than $42 bil­lion for sci­en­tific re­search and ed­u­ca­tion at uni­ver­si­ties and non­prof­its across the coun­try. Most of this in­vest­ment con­trib­uted to Amer­i­can in­no­va­tion, eco­nomic com­pet­i­tive­ness and na­tional se­cu­rity. Tax­pay­ers would be sur­prised to learn that ap­prox­i­mately one-quar­ter of that fund­ing — more than $10 bil­lion — pays not for the cost of re­search but to cover uni­ver­si­ties’ and non­prof­its’ over­head.

Since World War II, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, uni­ver­si­ties and non­profit re­search in­sti­tu­tions have worked in part­ner­ship to con­duct re­search in our na­tion’s in­ter­est. Congress has au­tho­rized fed­eral science agencies to re­im­burse re­searchers for their over­head ex­penses — called in­di­rect costs, or fa­cil­i­ties and ad­min­is­tra­tive costs.

In­di­rect costs are sup­posed to pay for util­ity bills for univer­sity lab­o­ra­to­ries, se­cu­rity ser­vices and com­pli­ance with fed­eral reg­u­la­tions. Over time, uni­ver­si­ties have in­cluded items like univer­sity pres­i­dents’ salaries and ben­e­fits, and new univer­sity build­ings in the in­di­rect costs of fed­er­ally funded re­search. Some uni­ver­si­ties now claim that up to 60 per­cent of fed­eral re­search grants are needed for fa­cil­i­ties and ad­min­is­tra­tion costs.

About $1.3 bil­lion of the Na­tional Science Foun­da­tion’s (NSF) an­nual bud­get for sci­en­tific re­search is con­sumed by in­di­rect cost pay­ments to uni­ver­si­ties and re­search in­sti­tu­tions. $1.3 bil­lion is a lot of tax­payer money. It could pay for 2,000 more sci­en­tific re­search projects in crit­i­cal ar­eas like physics, bi­ol­ogy, com­puter science and en­gi­neer­ing. Sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies and in­no­va­tions in these fields are es­sen­tial to our fu­ture eco­nomic and na­tional se­cu­rity.

Uni­ver­si­ties and non­prof­its should be re­im­bursed for rea­son­able costs of spon­sor­ing fed­er­ally funded re­search. How­ever, the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice has warned that in­di­rect costs

are tak­ing a larger and larger share of funds for sci­en­tific re­search. Many uni­ver­si­ties are press­ing to raise in­di­rect costs even higher.

Are tax­pay­ers pay­ing for rea­son­able and le­git­i­mate over­head ex­penses con­nected to fed­er­ally funded re­search projects? Or are tax­pay­ers sub­si­diz­ing ex­cess and waste? And are our uni­ver­si­ties and non­prof­its just us­ing the NSF as an­other source of rev­enue?

Sev­eral stud­ies have shown that fa­cil­ity and ad­min­is­tra­tion costs at Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties have risen dra­mat­i­cally in the last three decades, fu­el­ing the higher cost of tu­ition and re­search and re­sult­ing in an un­sus­tain­able tra­jec­tory.

From 1978 to 2014, ad­min­is­tra­tive po­si­tions at uni­ver­si­ties rose 369 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion of Univer­sity Pro­fes­sors. Fac­ulty po­si­tions, how­ever, have in­creased much more slowly: part­time teach­ing jobs in­creased by 286 per­cent, but full-time ten­ure and tenure­track fac­ulty ap­point­ments in­creased only 23 per­cent.

Uni­ver­si­ties have been on a build­ing boom. In 2015, Amer­i­can col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties spent $12 bil­lion on con­struc­tion and ren­o­va­tions, dou­ble what they spent in 1995. New univer­sity build­ings are be­ing fi­nanced by fed­eral tax­pay­ers, em­bed­ded in in­di­rect costs of re­search.

I re­cently met with a univer­sity pres­i­dent who de­scribed hav­ing to spend $1 mil­lion to build a new lab in or­der to re­cruit a high-pro­file scientist from an­other in­sti­tu­tion. Why should tax­pay­ers foot the bill for the debt pay­ments on these costs?

Tax­pay­ers need to know that their in­vest­ments in science are not be­ing wasted on low-pri­or­ity projects, mar­ble-floored build­ings and col­lege ad­min­is­tra­tors’ salaries. The Trump bud­get has pro­posed a thor­ough re­assess­ment of in­di­rect costs. Congress should fol­low through and de­ter­mine what changes should be made to as­sure that fed­er­ally funded re­search is con­ducted ef­fi­ciently, re­spon­si­bly and trans­par­ently.

Re­duc­ing fed­eral agencies’ re­dun­dant re­port­ing and reg­u­la­tory re­quire­ments on re­search would peel away one layer of waste­ful ex­penses. Leg­is­la­tion to stream­line fed­eral over­reg­u­la­tion of re­search orig­i­nated in the House Science Com­mit­tee, which I chair, and was signed into law last year.

Congress also should con­sider im­prov­ing and sim­pli­fy­ing the out­dated and com­pli­cated sys­tem for ne­go­ti­at­ing in­di­rect costs. Uni­ver­si­ties’ and re­search in­sti­tu­tions’ in­di­rect costs should be made pub­lic. A flat-rate cap, an ap­proach used by other West­ern na­tions, should be con­sid­ered.

Amer­ica’s fu­ture de­pends on re­main­ing a global leader in tech­nol­ogy and in­no­va­tion. We can’t af­ford waste and ex­cess. Every dol­lar we spend on sci­en­tific re­search must count.


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